What is the difference between 'suzerainty' and 'federalism’? I’ve found the following definitions, but they sound similar in many ways. What is the main difference between these 2 forms of government?


Suzerainty is any relationship in which one region or polity controls the foreign policy and relations of a tributary state while allowing the tributary state to have internal autonomy.

SRC: Wikipedia


having or relating to a system of government in which several states form a unity but remain independent in internal affairs.

SRC : Google

  • I think explaining the difference in government between Gibraltar and Wisconsin is probably more the subject matter of Politics than English. Nov 6, 2019 at 14:21

3 Answers 3


It's the difference between Indian Territories and States, or Palestine versus the Tel Aviv District in Israel.

The Indian Territories and Palestine, while they get a few perks of being their own government separate from the parent country, they also are typically treated as second-class citizens of the parent country and classified as 'domestic dependent nations'.

Furthermore, the parent country has no obligations to the child country in a suzerainty: My quadruple-citizenship as a member of my city, county, state, and nation allow me to petition a 'higher' governmental layer to do something that benefits a lower layer up to and including international treaties, and can vote my representative out if s/he doesn't comply.

By contrast, the US Government has plenary power over the Indian Territories, but while it can pass legislation regarding interstate commerce, it cannot preclude individual states from passing their own legislation on the subject.

  • Are inhabitants of the Indian Territories second-class citizens? Don't they have the same rights as other US citizens? They can petition all governmental layers and vote their representatives out, can't they?
    – michau
    Nov 7, 2019 at 0:34
  • 1
    @michau Historically? Their individual lands were taken from them, they were forced onto dusty, featureless land that no one else wanted, they were forced to adopt White Anglo-Saxon Protestant traditions instead of their own traditions via the kidnapping of their children and 'reeducating' them in boarding schools, and they had no redress when the US government violated its own treaties over and over again.
    – Carduus
    Nov 7, 2019 at 14:01
  • 1
    @michau Today? They've been forced to live in places where there's no work, nothing valuable on or in their lands, and no fertility for crops, and each tribe is given X dollars from the government to stay there, thereby perpetuating this poverty. This has the added 'benefit' of forcing the Tribes to battle amongst themselves on who is a 'real' member of a tribe, because each new member means that there is less money per person to go around.
    – Carduus
    Nov 7, 2019 at 14:04

As an additional point (quoting Wikipedia)

Suzerainty is a practical, de facto situation, rather than a legal, de jure one.

So it can occur in a much broader number of cases. Current examples are rather limited (Carduus gave some), but historically, suzerainty occurred a lot during feudalism. Wikipedia gives as historical examples the Ottoman empire ruling over a number of (Eastern) European countries, or the Qing dynasty ruling over Mongolia etc., or the Holy Roman Empire's relationship with some of its dominions. And slightly more formal (or at least using a different name), but not entirely codified, the "paramountcy" of the British Crown over various Indian states.

As for federalism, it's a more codified, modern concept, in which there is usually a constitution that sets out the rights of the member states of the federation and what power sharing scheme they use; typically there's some representation of the member states e.g. in a Senate-style second chamber of parliament etc. None of that need exist for suzerainty, i.e. suzerainty can be entirely dictatorial and enough historical examples of suzerainty were like that.


I tend to liken Federalism to a union's collective bargining actions. Typically, Federal Nations are formed from initially independent nations' governments deciding to collectively agree to cede certain powers to a "Federal Government" while retaining other powers of a nation-state for themselves. For example, the United States ceded regulation to external commerce and foreign policy to a collective bargaining Union (The Federal Government) but not other actions, say, on zoning or land use laws. It's why a lot of federal nations tend to have capital cities in historical middles of the nation, and often times these cities are planned and much "newer" than other cities from that period (U.S., Brazil, and Australia all have capital cities that were purpose built and are not the major world cities of those nations. And there not the only federations with small planned capitals, just the ones everyone knows).

With a suzerainty, the junior nation in the relationship is more like Lando Calerissian while the senior nation is Darth Vader. If the Junior Nation doesn't agree with the Senior Nation's policy, they are more than welcome to protest, but ultimatly they'll find that the senior nation "has altered the deal" and they should pray it's not further altered. Generally, it occurs when the senior nation can power project and has interest in junior nation in so far as they can further those power projections, but not in so far as they actually care about the junior partner's existance outside of their own. The Junior Nation might enter for weapons or military hardware in exchange for the senior's own export of goods, or a small chunk of land for a forward base, and while the deal may benefit senior partner and upset the junior partner, it's a lot better than going it alone against the regional power that hates them. In the star wars example, Vader really didn't care about the small mining operation on Cloud City (or the possible loose reading of the laws and regulations of the industry) but rather, it was because Cloud City could be used to capture Luke and turn him... once that was done, they would thank the Cloud City by not caring about them... until the next time they needed them. The first film has a scene where from the discussion, the Death Star and it's status as one of the biggest sticks meant that the Emperor no longer needed the frustration that was the much more limited senate for governing planetary issues. Rather than deal with getting out of a Bacta Tank Bath for every whiny Moff or pissy senator, Palpatine could make the problem go away in a way that the whiner probably wouldn't like.

The difference is the difference between volunteering to work for a common good, and being volun-told to work for a common good.

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